"In the same breath" review: Wuhan 2019, or when normality ended

When you hear about filmmakers in conflict zones, you can flash on countries like Syria or Afghanistan. Films produced in theaters of w...


When you hear about filmmakers in conflict zones, you can flash on countries like Syria or Afghanistan. Films produced in theaters of war often follow a similar arc: the documentary filmmaker parachutes to take stock of a disaster. The focus tends to be on the rubble, the blood and the suffering – the spectacle. During her short and successful career, Chinese filmmaker Nanfu Wang has repeatedly returned to a less obvious conflict zone in which the proverbial war of hearts and minds unfolds primarily through state propaganda.

His latest, “In the same breath”, is a clear and crisp look at the pandemic. And, as she did with her documentary “A nation of children(Performed with Jialing Zhang), Wang strongly merges the political with the personal. In mid-January 2020, she flew to China with her toddler to visit family for the New Year, a trip the two had already taken. (Born in China, Wang has lived in the United States for years.) Over images of fireworks exploding in the night sky, she says with regret that “It was the last moment I remember when life still seemed normal “. And then she fills the screen with a rush of images: a blur of hospitals, x-rays, reports and other visions of our Covid-19 world.

At the time, few people – and certainly not Wang – knew that all normalcy was quickly disappearing when she briefly left her son with his mother to return to the United States. The same day it took off, China began shutting down Wuhan, the center of the outbreak. By isolating the city, China was trying to contain the virus and the pneumonia-like respiratory illness it caused. At the same time, people elsewhere were traveling for the lunar new year Party (chunyun), which is considered the largest mass migration in the world, involving billions of trips. You know the rest of this story, or think about it: there was no stopping the virus, although, as Wang suggests, surely it could have been mitigated.

Agilely bringing together a multitude of found and original documents – as well as 10 cameramen across China, some of which remain anonymous – Wang takes you back to the early stages of the pandemic, before Wuhan was shut down, before the virus was officially named. She pulls out cellphone videos, collects news reports and finds extremely strange surveillance footage inside a Wuhan clinic. It’s unsettling, sometimes haunting, to see people going about their business, sometimes stuck together partying or just living their daily, poignant lives, while others cough, stagger in emergency rooms and, in some distressing images, remain powerless in the streets.

Some of these items will be familiar to you given the enormity of the disaster and its coverage. And there are moments here that are reminiscent of the recent documentary “76 days, An immersive account of Wuhan’s closure from inside the city. Yet Wang brings new perspectives to the crisis, and she manages to both surprise and alarm you. She also quickens your pulse, and not just by mounting fast, especially during the short time she is apart from her child. But even after her husband brings their son home safely, a sense of deep urgency – and mystery – permeates the film as she toggles between the past and the near present, and revisits what was known. and what was hidden.

To this end, as she has done in her previous work, Wang artfully and methodically looks at the Chinese propaganda machine, showing how disinformation shapes ordinary life, how it defines a people’s consciousness of them- themselves and their country. It is relentlessly hard on its leaders. Nothing but a crack dialectician, she repeatedly points to the disconnect between what is happening on the ground in China, in hospitals and elsewhere, and how the government has responded to a situation that was getting out of hand. In speeches, lectures and smiling reports, officials and their spokespersons have insisted that all is well. It was a message that, as Wang reminds you with overwhelming lucidity, American officials were also sending to their people.

One of the draws of Wang’s work is the way she fits into her films in a way that never slips into solipsistic narcissism. Rather, she uses her own story and identity – as a daughter and mother, as a Chinese national, and as an American transplant recipient – to open up other stories and identities, telling stories that are invariably bigger than one. any person.

If “In the Same Breath” – the title becomes more resonant with each new scene and shock – were simply about China and its handling (mismanagement) of the pandemic, that would be exemplary. But the story she tells is bigger and deeper than any country because it’s a story that envelops us all, and it’s devastating.

In the same breath
Unclassified. Duration: 1 hour 35 minutes. To watch on HBO platforms.

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Newsrust - US Top News: "In the same breath" review: Wuhan 2019, or when normality ended
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